Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2021

2021ban

My listening veered towards the familiar when it came to East Asian pop this year, with many of this year’s top artists making second or third appearances on these year-end lists. This is totally unremarkable, considering that the most pervasive feeling I have had lately is the nagging gloom that 2020 and 2021 have actually just been one very long year, and everything bleeding together makes it hard to distinguish this year’s J-pop from last. Treading water is what you do when you’re trying not to drown, not when the environment is conducive to innovation, and so we saw a lot of trends hanging on throughout 2021, from the lasting impact of The Weeknd’s sizzling synths in “Blinding Lights,” (RYUJI IMAICHI, Lexie Lu) to the last gasps of a certain kind of aggressive dance-pop unique to mid-00s (w-inds.), warm bubble-bath Johnny’s (SixTONES, Snow Man), all the way to a doubling-down of all the familiar tropes of idol- and K- and City-pop (Yufu Terashima, TWICE, YUKIKA). Here are my top ten favorite, in no particular order:

Lexie Liu: GONE GOLD // LatuLatu: Hyakkaryoransen

Morning Musume ’21.: 16th ~ That’s J-POP // YUKIKA: TIMEABOUT,

Yufu Terashima: SURVIVAL LADY // RYUJI IMAICHI: CHAOS CITY

GENIE HIGH: GENIE STAR // TWICE: Formula of Love: O+T=<3

NiziU: U // w-inds.: 20XX “We are”

Honorable Mentions

BANDMAID: Unseen World
Sakurako Ohara: l
FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Perfume: POLYGON WAVE EP
Key: Bad Love

Advertisement

Top ten debut albums of 2021

2021ban

2020 was a tough year to debut but 2021 wasn’t much better. The albums on this list represent all of the experiences on the spectrum, from those being carried on a wave bigger than they could imagine, to those taking a calculated risk, to those throwing caution to the wind and just hoping for the best. Some of these albums will cast long shadows, thresholds that will be hard to meet or surpass in the future (Olivia Rodrigo), while others fell just slightly short of the mark but hint at enormous potential (CHUNG HA). But the most important and horrifying thing all of these albums did was show how relentlessly time moves forward, a steady stream of novelty that (thankfully, sometimes regretfully) refuses to ebb.

debut1

Noriko Shibasaki: Follow my heart // Maggie Lindemann: PARANOIA

debut2

Pink Sweat$: PINK PLANET // SG Lewis: times

debut3

Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR // Jay Diggs: Jams

debut4

BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE: Pass The Mic // Kazaki Morinaka: Gekokujou

debut5

Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic // MIRAE: KILLA

Honorable Mentions

MyDearDarlin’: Dearest
Khirki: Κτηνωδία
KOTONE: RESIST
CHUNG HA: QUERENCIA
Spiritbox: Eternal Blue

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2021

2021ban

It’s best to get the bad news out of the way, so let’s power through some of the worst listening experiences you could have: not the truly awful, but the ones that missed the mark, that ones that just didn’t hit the way you wanted them to, the ones that made you re-consider, even if just for a few minutes, why you called yourself a fan in the first place, the ones that make you question the weeks or months you spent in anticipation, only to be crushed by the weight of mediocre. This list has them all: YG’s much-anticipated new boy band that we haven’t seen or heard from again in the eleven months since THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT underwhelmed back in January, maestros dropping the ball when it seemed as if the source material already did half the work (Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer), and artists whose significant collaborations should have warranted a lot more than their net result (Halsey). And let’s not forget “official” debuts that deserved so, so much more (CL, aespa). Though to be frank, there was nothing more disappointing this year than the ubiquitous, unrelenting, and uninspired appearance of the colon in the titles of K-pop albums. Here are the other ten, in no particular order:

TREASURE: THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT // Lady Gaga: Dawn of Chromatica

Hans Zimmer: Dune (Original Soundtrack) // aespa: Savage

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: CANDY RACER // Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Nicholas Britell: Cruella (Original Score) // Daniel Pemberton: Being the Ricardos (Original Soundtrack)

CL: Alpha // Red Velvet: Queendom

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2020

In a year that I dedicated myself to listening to as many albums in the top ten of various physical and streaming Japanese and Korean charts as I could, I was struck, as usual, by how many of the best albums were those on the periphery, those that just missed out, or never even saw the top thirty. But I was as equally struck, as usual, by how big and fun and all-encompassing pop albums are, as long as you’re willing to dig a little, to slog through the ten or twenty average or terrible albums to unearth the one that reiterates why it’s so important to listen as carefully, and widely, as possible. This year, we all took comfort in the familiar as much as possible, and many of the names on this list reflect that bias. The real surprise this year was how little it mattered, and how good it felt, list-making album or not, to see old favorites step up to the plate and bravely deliver what they were capable of in a year they very well could have sat back and took a well-deserved break. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.) Thanks for spending the whole week looking back with me!

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

LatuLatu were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok in 2019, but Mangekyou ETERNTY, the band’s first mini-album boasts an ambition beyond the boundaries of an office chair. Full of energy and earnestness, this quick shot of high-speed J-rock proves that while hibernating, J-rock is not nearly as listless or dead as any number of Oricon or streaming charts might have you believe. It feels like LatuLatu have the ability to breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes anemic, sometimes too anime-pop-reliant genre, a challenge that subsequent singles have proven they’re up to.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

For years, Uesaka has cultivated a uniquely gifted hyper-pop sound, one reliant on styles as far-reaching as idol-pop, chiptune, techno, metal, and military marches. Somehow, she makes them all work, creating a world so sonically exciting, it’s practically visual. NEO PROPAGANDA is just another installment in that ultra 4K world of poly-tempos and speed shifts. The album boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbued the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture. So much unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek if it weren’t so much fun.

Reol: Kinjito
(2020.01.22)

Reol may be new to the J-pop scene but her sound is now as old as the first wave of electro-house that hit shores a la Nakata in the mid-00s. In fact, with her vocals turned up to computer glitch, she sounds remarkably like J-pop’s other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her indie-android, MAA, who released Monkey Kingdom exactly ten years ago, signed to a major, and promptly disappeared. One hopes Reol’s bio will read differently; Reol hopes so, too, with the aptly titled Kinjito, the culmination of years presumably learning how to push buttons, and cut and paste, in just the right ways. While the sound itself is nothing unique, Reol brings a charm and warm perspective to a sometimes erratic and jarring genre that can often feel downright arctic. Here’s hoping we see more from this personality than we did from those whose footsteps she’s following.

Shuta Sueyoshi: pret a porter
(2020.02.12)

Sueyoshi has spent the last few years carving a small groove in J-pop for himself, one he can now comfortably afford to dig into as AAA goes on hiatus. Following the release of 2018’s JACK IN THE BOX and last year’s EP WONDER HACK, pret a porter is Sueyoshi on his continual quest for the ever-elusive male solo star label, one coveted by many and achieved by almost none. While pret a porter doesn’t signal a victory, it does point in the right direction, a laid back blend of ironed out R&B and dance-pop-lite that wears its vocalist’s experience more than the desperate, youthful hunger of so many newcomers. It’ll take a bit more oomph to stand out and prove he’s worth sticking out for, but in a year of few direct contenders, pret a porter is a perfectly edible slice of contemporary Avex, with plenty of fun on the side.

ONEPIXCEL: LIBRE
(2020.02.26)

It’s not easy being a J-pop trio, not when you debut in hopes of drawing upon the same fan pool as Perfume and callme (or kolme, as it were now), and definitely not when you want to transition to the level of a Fairies or GEM or E-girls at a time when all of those groups have or are on the verge of disbanding. But in fact, this makes a group like ONEPIXCEL all the more vital, women singing for other women and girls and themselves, and boys and men, too, if they want, not exclusively for the hearts and pocketbooks of a convenient niche. Backed by an audaciously Avex-pop sophomore album, LIBRE, ONEPIXCEL make their struggle look and sound as fun as it should. As a veritable anomaly I applaud them. And pray.

Gesu no Kiwami Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

In 2020, we reached peak-Enon Kawatani. With fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, and numerous releases flooding the market, we’re just at the beginning of what could be the end. So, with goodwill precarious, but still intact, it’s a good time to celebrate STREAMING, CD, RECORD. While the album doesn’t land the same punches as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a lackluster addition. Whether extensions of his other projects, or leftovers, it’s pure Kawatani, all dandy pianos, studied rap-singing, and audaciously wacky interludes, on par with the seasoned, almost so-easy-it’s-boring vibes Kawatani is giving off. This can easily start to fall into the existential throes of condescension for either his work or his audience, but for now, Kawatani still manages to make it sound easy in the spirit of experience, rather than cynicism.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

Across all genres and languages, BBHF’s BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, is one of the greatest albums of the year. It’s honest and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. During a year we all had to navigate a new world, it was easy to relate to a desire to leave it all behind and start somewhere new. But as the hero discovers for himself, there is no genuine escape, only the boring, unromantic work of dealing with baggage you can never leave behind anywhere you go, today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

TAEMIN: Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1
(2020.09.07)

SHINee-member TAEMIN released two solo EPs this year, and it is the first of the pair that continues to shine, leading with the slinky single “Criminal,” and “2 KIDS.” Unlike the second set, which so desperately needed to balance Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1‘s darker side and didn’t, Act 1 showcases TAEMIN as a man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance with a sound down pat from a lifetime of training and practice. It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. It’s a thin line between indulging and wallowing but Act 1 gets it right, incorporating some more uptempo tracks like previous Japanese hit “FAMOUS” to illustrate TAEMIN’s ability to be both artist and pop star, one of the closest living talents we have to the Super Stars of old.

SuperM: SuperOne
(2020.09.25)

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. But while good looks and unique abilities have captured the attention of long-time fans and curious, new eyes, it has been up to the music itself to deliver the final ingredient. For their first full-length album, SM spared no expense in flexing their resources, pouring massive amounts of time and budget into the songwriters who chorus, by verse, by sample, by effect, stitched together a defining statement for the group, one perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on aggressive boy-band energy with typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), but that bares its teeth in the service of catchy hooks and of-the-moment trends nearly pile-driving each other into infinity. Super One nails it: with no expense spared, it sounds just as rich as it cost, and just as good, too, the best pop money can buy. And 2020 is a year we all deserved to splurge.

TWICE: Eyes wide open
(2020.10.26)

TWICE continues to defy expectations with their releases, a not always welcome back and forth between otherworldly, next-level pop, and head-scratching hiccups. Like last year’s Feel Special, Eyes wide open is the former, a deliciously indulgent callback to K-pop’s dance roots, with lead track “I CAN’T STOP ME” recalling groups like T-ara and Dal Shabet at their best. The synthy 80’s sound finds further purchase in songs like “UP NO MORE” and “DO WHAT WE LIKE,” stopping only for lower-key vibes on the back half, like “GO HARD” and “HANDLE IT.” The entire album is like a guided tour of the best of the last decade in K-pop girl groups, from 2NE1 to WJSN, all the way up to BLACKPINK, and while this might not say much for TWICE specifically, it makes for a particularly cozy listening experience that surprises and delights with each track.

Honorable Mentions

Mia REGINA: MIAUSEUM -CURATION-
Ayaka Ohashi WINGS
CY8ER: Tokyo
KAI (EXO): KAI
RINGOMUSUME: Cool & Country

Top ten debut albums of 2020

The debut category is one of the most fun of the year, a chance to celebrate what riches may lay ahead in the future. While these albums and EPs may not be perfect, they can stop you in your tracks, spark intrigue, and tantalize with the promise of everything yet to come. While some may never make good on these promises, it’s the optimism that keeps me coming back to this category each year with necessary delight, an optimism we could all use now more than ever now. In chronological order, here are some of this year’s best debut music releases that, along with the vaccines, makes the future worth holding out for. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12

The EXILE franchise continued to expand in 2020 with the addition of FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE even as other branches were lopped off entirely. The group released four notable singles over the course of 2019, culminating in a previously-heard-material heavy debut album, released in February. FANTASTICS are like the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS, with an emphasis on dance over hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. FANTASTIC 9 needed some serious trimming, but which hopefully stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. Since this album, the group has released a few more singles, with “High Fever” in particular a stand out, all boding well for the future of this particular J-pop boy band.

MCND: into the ICE AGE
(2020.02.27)

We all lived on an entirely different planet back in February, one where the terrain of upcoming K-pop debuts felt wide and expansive. At that stage, a group like MCND felt like just another drop in the debut ocean, yet over time, as the number of debuts were culled, or folded from financial strain, MCND stood out more for its relative unique position, rather than genuine potential. Despite a lackluster followup that relied too heavily on their “element” gimmick over creating a stand-out hit, “ICE AGE” remains one of my favorite debut singles of the year, with a particularly good pre-chorus. It’s hard to see anything dramatic coming of this group, but MCND offer a pleasantly nostalgic look back at the state of the generous, forgiving, and hopeful mind we could all afford to be in ten months ago.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

So Sweet Dolce might rely a bit too heavily on its predecessors, from Aya Uchida to Yui Ogura, but its commitment to a (somewhat hackneyed) concept and relentlessly upbeat personality made this album a welcome distraction in the spring. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa has since released a follow-up EP in November tha,t while scaling down my personal expectations, does portend a successful career in fresh-faced, anison idol-dom.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

In a K-pop world where nearly every girl and boy group have fallen prey to BTS/BLANKPINK-syndrome (a terminal condition presenting with symptoms of similarity and pandering, with a fierce, almost desperate sense of competitiveness), including such venerable institutions as SM Entertainment, it was nice to see a group that went for a completely different approach, instead tailoring their sound to airy Japanese idol-pop. Though technically a “pre-debut,” this EP containing four songs has grown on me more slowly, but firmly, than any other debut this year, with its unbridled joy and warm-pancakes positivity. Their Japan-side buzz promises more of the same and I hold out hope that the group doesn’t capitulate to pressure to compete on a world-stage by diluting what makes them so great.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

I’m not completely sold on this debut album, but I have to admit its place in 2020 as a stand-out is nearly unparalleled. For example, YUKIKA’s commitment to city pop could do with a bit more consistency on the production side. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL album. Still, the potential for YUKIKA to transcend easy familiarity is high, and if Soul Yeoja is just the first in a line of skillful homages, it deserves credit for whetting appetites hungry for something different, even if city pop, in general, is as far from “different” as we can get a decade into the existence of Bandcamp.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

While Axa Max lacks the quirky magnetism of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, she projects the same intrepid effort on her debut full-length Heaven & Hell. The basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Ava Max can come up with with an A-list producer, and hope to see her get the chance to make magic in the years to come.

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s years in the trenches of pop music, writing for bigger artists with bigger budgets and bigger labels has paid off in her first full-length Strangers / Lovers. Collecting a handful of previously released singles, alongside new tracks, the album focuses less on fresh than fun, rooting itself in conventional dance-pop, while drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. However, the songs emanate a deft skill and attention to detail crafted by an obviously seasoned hand. One hopes Dagny has finally proved she deserves more time and resources to devote to her own career.

beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers
(2020.10.16)

My aversion to grunge is tempered by the intense nostalgia it provokes, one that beabadoobee has harnessed to success on her debut album Fake It Flowers. Combined with sometimes naive, heart-on-its-sleeve confessions, the album focuses less on wrapping up a tidy package than on the process, one that indulges in all the messy feelings and everyday cliches that make up honest human relationships. The sound, reliant on the aforementioned 90’s alternative and indie rock sound, suits this very candid and clearly cathartic debut album from a voice that will only benefit from more time and experience.

Nova Miller: The Passion
(2020.10.16)

It’s time we all face the changing landscape and accept that TikTok is the new YouTube, brimming with undiscovered talent and up-and-coming chart toppers. As a succinct premonition, the debut EP The Passion from multi-talented Swedish singer Nova Miller exemplifies the riches we have to look forward to from some of the unlikeliest, and often derided sources. This EP is everything Strangers / Lovers could have been if it had managed a bit more luck in the catchy hook department. But we’ll be in for a real treat when Miller finally figures out how to incorporate and showcase her wide range, marking this as a true debut: one that teases rather than fully delivering.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

Like Dagny, RAYE already has a history, giving her a leg-up on other debut albums, one that proves this distinction can get a bit murky and muddled when you’re trying to organize all the singles and collabs, and figure out what distinguishes an EP from a true full-length. I’m going with full-length here because there’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway 00s Eurodance sample, like RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a a bit too heavily on this tongue-in-cheek homage to 90’s dance, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation. I’m not sure if there’s a long career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback, but it’s so fun, it’s hard to simply dismiss.

Honorable Mentions

color-code: Re∂l
Muni Long: Black
Gabby Barrett: Goldmine
Haruka Kudo: KDHR
Re:Complex: Neo Gravity

November 2020: Highlights

It’s been a pleasure spending the first Monday of every month going over some highlights with you all, but it’s also been a personal lifeline this past year. We’ve never been luckier to have hard-working, passionate, talented people who, despite the events of the last eleven months, have continued to entertain us, distract us, and make us think. I’m happy to think anyone might have discovered some new music through this site, or looked at something in a new way, and I hope the year-end wrap-up to come will cover some more of the hundreds of releases I didn’t have time to write about or listen to deeply enough to feel comfortable writing about. So without further ado, here is the (slight, but heartfelt) last of the monthly highlights for 2020, and I’ll see you all at the end of the year!

Kylie Minogue: Disco
(2020.11.06)

Like a lot of labels, Kylie Minogue’s decided to start promoting its legendary star’s newest album back in July with the most radio-friendly and least-representative song of her new album Disco. “Say Something,” an otherwise halfhearted shrug of a song, did little to ramp up excitement for an album with such campy cover art promising a no-holds barred, mirror ball, leisure suit, Studio 54 fantasy extravaganza. Luckily, the rest of the album, while emphasizing the pop, mostly delivers on its tantalizing premise. What’s Your Pleasure? this is not: Kylie Minogue is first and foremost a pop star, not a disco diva, and the structure of each of these bubbly baubles keeps her rooted in very familiar territory. Its an album that joins a long list of club-ready hits from the aforementioned Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa, and Roisin Murphy, but besides Lipa’s, Minogue’s boasts the most accessible and the least experimental approach to its revival, a disco album for a general audience content to dabble rather than immerse. It’s an achievement nonetheless, banking on its ability to offer escapism and help put out the dumpster fire that was 2020. Most importantly, it is not Golden.

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: “High Fever”
(2020.11.11)

The female-side of the EXILE family has suffered tremendously this year with the loss of E-girls, one of the greatest J-pop girl groups of the last decade. I say this with no exaggeration — we will be waiting a long time for a group as remarkable, talented, and inclusive as E-girls to appear in J-pop again. Until then, we will have to make do with their closest male-counterparts, FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE, who are now tasked with carrying the dance-pop torch. The trick will be avoiding the temptation to fall into boring ballad territory, which the group has already flirted with this year. Luckily, “High Fever” takes a page from the “Blinding Lights” playbook, feasting on a spread of lightweight 80’s synths and groovy tension, all in service of showcasing an endless parade of ooh-and-ahh parlor tricks and choreography amidst a sea of eye-popping sartorial patterns. The song is in desperate need of more heft, but is otherwise one of the most focused boy band songs of the year, with a clear, noble purpose: piping in a constant stream of simultaneous activity from eight different corners to keep us as distracted as possible.

aespa: “Black Mamba”
(2020.11.18)

aespa is SM Entertainment’s newest girl group, the next in a long line rumored to be all but replacing its predecessor Red Velvet, much as Red Velvet replaced f(x), one group trumping the next in an endless and increasingly bizarre one-upmanship that continually suffers in quality, like a copy of a copy of a copy. Unlike groups like SNSD or f(x), aespa, with its “modern” gimmick of virtual members, spends less time proving they’re in it for the long haul, than that they are very much here to compete in the here and now with BLACKPINK, the world’s current reigning girl group. Thrust onto the world stage, K-pop groups no longer have the luxury to make the gradual journey with fans from neophytes to seasoned professionals, instead storming out of the gate with their “I Got a Boy“s like experienced veterans on their fifth comeback. So goes “Black Mamba,” with its technicolor PV evoking almost every saturated, holographic, Y2K-rainbow trend in visuals this year, from “How You Like That?” to Kalen Anzai’s “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION.” It has a killer chorus, a dazzling hook, and arresting choreography, made instantly iconic by belly-up angles and abrupt camerawork. All of these pleasing elements make the song hard to hate, but also rob the group of what should have been its most important hallmark: the unique and instantly recognizable feel of an SM group. As SM’s least-SM group to date, it will be interesting to see where they evolve from here when this debut feels less like a prologue than an ultimate finesse.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

There’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway Eurodance sample, as RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a bit too heavily on this kind of tongue-in-cheek homage, tailgating on the 90’s dance trend that has consumed Brit-pop on and off over the past decade, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation for the source material. There’s not much of long-term career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback that won’t age well when the inevitable dub step revival commences, but a lot of this year’s best pop music has been predicated on successfully working within the confines of a less than ideal environment and limited shelf-life, and this one, without having much to say, says it all.

The World Standard: What’s “standard”!?
(2020.11.25)

With Avex in the middle of its dark night of the soul, any of our favorite groups are fair game for the chopping block. Among others, I’m preparing myself for the inevitable end of TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, FAKY, possibly even FEMM. None of these groups have had the kind of popularity that could possibly justify continual investment from a company that is now bleeding profit. The worst of these would be Wasuta, rather than TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, because we’ve been prepared for years to bid farewell to a years-in-the-making footnote that has long since ceased to play on any relevant field, while Wasuta has proved through their newest EP What’s “standard”!? that while they may be removed from their most inspired material, they can still churn out idol-pop with the best of them. While a lot of the charm of this EP relies on a long-term connection with the group, I can still imagine a casual listener finding a reason to explore their back catalogue with this as an introduction. Unfortunately, the upcoming single releases and scheduled lives don’t mean we’re out of the woods, yet, and I’m reluctantly prepared for the worst.

October 2020: Highlights

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s story is similar to many pop artists in the age of Spotify: a never-ending stream of digital singles while moonlighting for more well-known pop stars like Katy Perry. Often this entails trying to gain a foothold in the industry by contributing to the packed song-writing labs of today’s Frankentstein-ed Billboard hits (in this case, “Never Really Over,” where she joins seven others with songwriting credits). So it’s nice that Dagny finally gets her moment in the spotlight, here proving she has the ability to surpass the bigger names who might as well admit it’s time to pass the torch. Like the massive hooks of a single like “Come Over,” the entire album is rooted in conventional dance-pop, drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. While it could do with a bit more surprises, it’s not a hard sell in a month where the only other major release from a female soloist was Ariana Grande’s positions, though it’ll really have to fight harder to be remembered in a year full of them.

WJSN Chocome: “Hmph!”
(2020.10.07)

With the world’s eyes on K-pop like never before, the niche groups of the Golden Age, the ones content to focus solely on a domestic audience with in-jokes and culture-specific references, have fallen to the wayside. There is almost no incentive to promote groups like Orange Caramel or Crayon Pop, groups with no chance of making their way outside of Asia without LOLs attached. Since every new or comeback group’s aesthetic nowadays is “cool,” “dark,” or “sexy,” it makes a sub-unit like WJSN Chocome even more novel and enticing. Their cues stem from off-the-wall sub-units before them in sight and sound from gugudan OGUOGU to OH MY GIRL BANHANA (and hey, whatever happened to FANATICS-FLAVOR?), to vintage J-pop (those Chisato Moritaka outfits!), though of course most comparisons to peak-Orange Caramel are most accurate, the eurodance, saxophone-loaded “Hmph!” one big Neapolitan-flavor-melt of uninhibited, geeky K-pop at its best. As these groups get fewer and farther between, it makes the ones that come along just that more radiant.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
(2020.10.09)

Like it’s fellow anthology series, American Horror Story, the second installment of Netflix’s The Haunting series casts many of the same actors in a loose re-telling of Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw. Like its predecessor, the real horrors are those that are less supernatural than ultra-natural, the ghosts of guilt, and shame, and past lives re-surfacing at a person’s most vulnerable moments. The Newton Brothers are back for the soundtrack, although in lieu of composing brand-new themes or re-inventing their sound, they’ve largely expanded upon their original work, dashing off a series of new snippets among a collection rife with quotes from the most iconic themes of Hill House. Luckily, they’ve learned a thing or two, trading in atmospherics for more melody, drawing out the first’s best elements: the eerie, melancholy piano most prominent in cues like “Beginning of the End Movement IV,” eschewing the necessary, but superfluous, sharp violins and abrupt dynamics. This makes for an overall more unsettling, and more listenable, experience of the two outside of their visual elements, perfect for any rainy autumn evening.

Nao☆: gift songs
(2020.10.13)

It’s inevitable, but disappointing, whenever great idol groups peter out. Sure Negicco’s peak-era run was short, ending with Rice & Snow, but at the time, they were as close to a bonafide idol group as possible, one both passionate idol fans and casual indie kids enjoyed. That cred has lent itself to other Tower Records-adjacent soloists like Michiru Hoshino, and to the other members themselves who have been dabbling in the solo waters since at least 2018. Their sounds are similar: last month Keade’s Stardust in Blue and this month, Nao’s gift songs are two EPs as close to mirror images as they get. Nao’s boasts help from groups with some rising clout like the band apart, it’s low-key vibe an antidote to Kaede’s more low-effort attempt. It’s a matter of personal taste, but Nao’s gift songs retains a kind of warm, whimsical charm missing from its sister EP, one closer in sound to the Rice & Snow sound. Neither of these are particularly game-changing, memorable EPs, but their throwback, warm-water oases are refreshing in a desert full of dusty, major-label idol pop that only Keyakizaka46 (RIP, kind of) can nominally transcend.

LOONA: [12:00]
(2020.10.19)

After the long wait after 2019’s double mini-albums, we only had to wait eight months since LOONA’s last, [#], released in February. A disappointing collection to say the least, I’m happy that this month’s [12:00], while still veering into unoriginal territory, is at least less of an attempt to compete on the same sonic world stage as BLACKPINK than more local girl groups, though all the mystery is still visibly reduced by the amount of stock samples in some of the tracks, especially the lead single, “Why Not?” which is clearly stitched together from various sources (check out the first three tracks of Super M’s Super One for an instructional guide in stitching independently-composed choruses, verses, and bridges together to create one massive hit, not unlike the origin story of every K-pop group itself) to encompass a songwriting-credits list as long as some telephone books (for anyone who remembers those) and nearly as many emotional beats. I’m partial to the more straight-forward dance-pop of “Voice,” one of [12:00]‘s strongest tracks, but as someone who no longer falls within their direct marketing demographic, I’m probably mistaken. The rest of the EP boasts some fun tracks, rounded out by obligatory subdued moments. It’s better than [#], but only just enough to keep me interested, rather than impressed.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: The Queen’s Gambit (Music from the Netflix Limited Series)
(2020.10.23)

It’s difficult to make chess, with its stoic concentration, and all the most exciting parts happening unseen, cerebrally, riveting on screen, but with the help of camera angles, quick cuts, and most importantly, a thrilling soundtrack, Netflix makes it seem easy. As one of the only companies poised to deliver a constant avalanche of new content during a pandemic that has shuttered theaters around the world, the streaming service is one of the few sources we looked to for a year bereft of blockbusters and their original scores that would have normally rolled off the assembly line this autumn like Lucy’s chocolates (actually, we did technically get Mulan, and I guess, Alan Silvestri’s score for The Witches, which was fine). The Queen’s Gambit, composed by newcomer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who has but a couple low-key credits to his name, relies on the show’s thematic content, deploying suspenseful strings and lush momentum alongside a gorgeous base of piano for his score, all while maintaining distinct themes for each of the show’s most important matches. Making chess as dramatic as the final game in the World Series has its challenges, and Rivera admits, “I grew up with chess in that my dad played a little, but I never cared about it. But as long as you know that someone stands to lose, you can score for it.” With an arresting story line and such a stunning score, it’s a win-win for the viewer.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

From the moment the lead single, “positions” dropped, it was apparent this was not going to be Ariana Grande’s experimental album. The question was: just how similar would it be to thank u, next? The answer is, extremely. Throughout her career, as a vocalist with incredible range and skill, Grande has had the pleasure and pain of being compared to Mariah Carey. positions proves that’s where the parallels end: while Grande has a hand in composing all of the tracks on this album, it lacks the melodic depth and dynamism of Carey as a songwriter at the same point in career (Carey’s sixth album was Butterfly, widely regarded as the turning point in her career, and one that has enjoyed not only critical acclaim, but popular support). On the other hand, the comparisons can only increase, as Grande seemingly does her best to imitate not only late-era Carey (specifically Caution), but her closest contemporaries, among them Victoria Monet, whose producer worked on both singers’ 2020 releases (and with Monet making a direct appearance on “34+35).” This doesn’t make positions a terrible album at all, in fact, sonically, it’s just as consistent as its predecessor, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level, of the year. Still, listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed. That ship, with Max Martin waving from the deck, has sailed, in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that boasts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd.

Meghan Trainor: A Very Trainor Christmas
(2020.10.30)

It’s hard to find holiday music that doesn’t suck the life out of classics that were never meant for a punk-rock or trance-pop remix. They exist, they’re just few and far between — if pressed, I could maybe name five albums right now. Yet every year I subject myself to the new year’s crop in search of the ever elusive black diamond of Christmas music. Among this year’s hopefuls, including Carrie Underwood, The Bird and the Bee, Goo Goo Dolls, and Maddie & Tae, Meghan Trainor is the last person I would expect to produce a serviceable, let alone good, album of holiday classics. But this is 2020, where all bets are off and we’ve truly reached an historical nadir, so here we are, in the muck, with Trainor’s album this year’s Christmas front-runner. Earlier this year, Trainor released a collection of pop music so past its sell-by date, it wouldn’t even have been relevant if it had met its original release date, scheduled for a year earlier. Yet the annoyingly jolly desperateness that hallmarks Trainor’s brand of confused feminism translates well into music that is built on joyful earnestness. In fact, Trainor could have easily taken this to JoJo Siwa-levels of exuberance, instead displaying a tasteful level of restraint on classics like “Silent Night,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that lesser souls have insisted on jazzing up with unnecessary tempo changes. The jazzing up, in fact, is relegated to originals like “Holidays” featuring, of all groups, Earth, Wind, and Fire, “My Kind of Present,” and “Christmas Got Me Blue.” These are not the kind of canon-storming songs planning to meet “All I Want for Christmas is You” on the top of the Hot 100, but you can do a lot worse if you’re desperate to feel some semblance of manufactured holiday cheer this year.

Sam Smith: Love Goes
(2020.10.30)

Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders, recently translated into English, unravels the story of a mass murder through interviews with several people related to the crime. One such character, an editor who worked with the woman who spent her graduate years researching the murders, appears at the climax of the mystery, eloquently musing on the book that he helped eventually publish: “In one sense,” he states, “something can only be recognized as having happened if there is a record of it.” Love Goes is Sam Smith’s record, chronicling what appears to be a very tumultuous time in their life. Like many albums this year, the album was delayed due to the pandemic, and in another sense, for a re-branding, its original title taking that of the then-titular track “To Die For,” where the singer laments not having someone in their life worth that very ultimate sacrifice. It is, instead, now named for a song about the tough decision to walk away from an irreparable relationship: “You’re broken, we know that,” they reluctantly admit, “And if you knew it, you won’t fight me when I say farewell.” It’s a total change to the original way listeners could interpret this album, from a place of reluctance, and of tortured loss looking back, to a more hopeful, forward-facing perspective of resigned understanding and acceptance. The entire album is rife with this kind of bruised sensitivity, with heartache, and a spiritual search for home and acceptance. Its highly personal, self-reflecting lyrical content can seem like the most irresponsible kind of self-indulgence in these times, but the care with which these songs were constructed make it more than just a whiny diary of break-up songs about Sam Smith’s former lovers. But even if it was, Love Goes, as a record of that time in their life, finally shared with the entire world, bears witness. It means it happened, and it means it happened forever.

September 2020: Highlights

Things have really picked up this month, prompting serious decisions about what I would realistically have time to focus on. At the same time, the race is now on to listen to any major releases I missed or put off all year in preparation for year-end lists. Yes, it’s already that time! In the usual way of things, the longest year of our collective lives is also careening past us, the unforgivable march of time continuing on its way. Below are a few of September’s highs and lows to enjoy in its wake.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

It’s always with more hope than faith whenever a group makes the best debut list of the year, as BBHF would have last year, if it hadn’t turned out they were just masquerading under a new name. Many of the groups won’t amount to much, or like so many K-pop groups, sputter out or disappear. In many cases, the only thing left behind is one great moment orchestrated to prove beginner’s luck. So maybe it’s a good thing BBHF didn’t make the cut, or maybe the name change was just what the band needed, as their “debut” studio album, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, proves. “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. “Let’s drink till we’re sick, of love itself,” they urge, as the synths swell and the titular character high tails it in a bid to escape depression and responsibility as if a physical entity, like so many Don Drapers before him. “Carrying all the burden in the back I will go south / I will go south, to survive.” It’s not the helpful message we need, perhaps one of the reasons the album was pushed back from its original May release date, but it’s honest, and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; one only wishes it was possible to shake off everything as easily.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Mulan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.04)

The story of getting Mulan released to the public is almost as epic as the film’s story line, a journey that promises to get topped only by Wonder Woman 1984 or No Time to Die‘s own struggle to hit the silver screen. Gregson-Williams battled his own struggle in providing the musical backdrop, standing in the shadow of legend Jerry Goldsmith, and reckoning with one of the most iconic songs in Christina Aguilera’s discography. Luckily, he neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original. If we’ve had to wait an extra six months to see the film, imagine how G-W, who began work for the film years before its release, felt! Luckily, the extra time paid off, with this score every bit as robust as the plot line and titular character requires: along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds. The whole thing is capped off by the original theme, sung by returning vocalist Aguilera, who belts out “Loyal Brave and True,” with all of the sincerity, if not skill, as her original work on “Reflection.” What this soundtrack didn’t need was a repeat of “Reflection,” with the new vocals a mere memory of what the singer was capable of delivering twenty years ago, when she was still ambitious enough to put the work required into making it sound so easy. This score isn’t re-writing the Disney playbook, but it’s one of the few I was genuinely looking forward to this year, and it has delivered in ways the film, based on critical reviews, hasn’t.

TAEMIN: NEVER GONNA DANCE AGAIN: ACT 1
(2020.09.07)

TAEMIN is one of the closest people we have to The Great Pop Star, something on a par with the type of megalomania we had in the 80s and early 90s, a Michael Jackson or Madonna, a Solitary Figure with an otherworldly sense of talent, charm, and charisma. All of these traits are on display in his newest video for “Criminal,” including the hardly-human way he moves his body and the uncanny knack he has for looking through the camera straight at the heart of the viewer on the other side. It’s important, but easy, to look past all the shiny surfaces, CGI, and loose fabrics TAEMIN is always draped in, because there is never a moment he doesn’t emanate straight out of it. Like his predecessors before him, he’s seemingly more comfortable in front of the camera than behind, a man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance, and not a moment before. The rest of the mini-album serves its purpose well. TAEMIN’s sound is down pat now, a hook-based, sinister pop infused with tantalizing mystery, like the foreboding “Strangers” and ethereal “Clockwork.” It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. I’m not looking forward to his two-year absence to serve his time in the military, and thinking of SHINee without him helps little with the looming void. I’m glad he’s leaving us a few more tokens, and between this and his duties in SuperM, I’m sure the physical requirements of training will seem relatively familiar to the work SM has him put in day in and day out.

YooA: Bon Voyage
(2020.09.07)

There have been a number of girl-group members with less than solo-worthy chops getting their time in the spotlight, so it’s nice to see one come up that doesn’t deserve to go straight to the discard pile. YooA, from OH MY GIRL, has released her debut solo EP, Bon Voyage, and it’s giving off all the I ♡ Natural meets Shakira vibes. Unfortunately, the title track is the only one to take some risks with the quotidien K-pop sound, leaving the rest of the EP, especially tracks like “Nareul Chajaseo (Far)” and “Jagagmong (Abracadabra)” to fill in the blanks. Overall, the collection is indecisive, a box of pretty, but mismatched buttons that’s easy to chalk up to lack of direction, but as long as we’re not in Hyoyeon, or insipid, one-off ballad territory, I’ll take any of these I can get. In any other month, one not so jam-packed with top tier releases, this would have been easier to appreciate — YooA might not be a superstar, but mostly she just got unlucky.

BABYMETAL: LEGEND – METAL GALAXY (METAL GALAXY WORLD TOUR IN JAPAN EXTRA SHOW) DAY 1 & 2
(2020.09.09)

Live albums rarely get much appreciation, and BABYMETAL’s latest illustrates why. As a live group, they are pretty great, making use of their strongest assets to cover for places they might be more deficient. They’re idols, but a lot of their fans are metal heads, so many of the usual tricks are tweaked, with video screens promoting the band’s Fox God myth, pyrotechnics over lasers, minimal costume changes, some goth-y props, etc. Lip-syncing still helps in a pinch here and there, especially almost all of MOA and YUI-METAL’S “vocals,” while the band, central to the sound but not the marketing, remain wailing away at their instruments in shadow, with the focus staying on the three (now two) stars of the show. It’s all a lot of fun, and the band clearly enjoys the performance realm more than the studio one judging by the sheer number of live albums and videos that have been released over the course of this group’s 3-album existence. The problem is that rarely does their live music warrant so much attention — like most of it, these two albums are nearly note for note the studio versions with an audience piped in. Unless there are some crazy innovative, off-the-cuff solos, or new arrangements, albums like these, especially when they are unnecessarily spread across two separate releases, are blatant cash grabs of the worst kind. While “money-makers” is how most producers like business-minded Kobametal have always viewed idol groups, I’m not really sure how much longer fans will put up with a stagnated mythology, poor communication, and such obvious, and constant, recycling.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

Going by initial buzz alone, you would think Ava Max wasn’t anything but a deliberate Lady Gaga clone. However, one thing was always clear during the drawn out string of singles leading up to her debut album Heaven & Hell: Ava Max has neither the quirky magnetism, nor the endearing desperation of Gaga’s early singles. “Just Dance” and “LoveGame,” were built on muscular hooks, their choruses as easily mutable through the expensive sound systems of clubs as tinny earbuds, the notes as hummable, and memorable, as a nursery rhyme. I barely registered any of Ava Max’s songs after the first listen. Luckily, her music works better in the album format, where the basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady, sturdy purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Max with a top-tier producer like Justin Tranter could come up with, though I worry that three years of little growth bodes ill for a journey to the next level.

Whenever You CallArashi: “Whenever You Call”
(2020.09.18)

It’s a shame that Arashi have reached a genuinely interesting stage of their career moments before calling it quits. Everything from a relatively robust Internet presence, to a Netflix documentary, to experimenting with popular social media platforms like TikTok that utilize their strongest appeal (personality), Johnny’s has finally allowed this group the space to grow, as the last year before hiatus, and what was sure to be a spectacular crowning performance at the 2020 Olympics went up in flames, comes to a close. This single, written by Bruno Mars and produced by D’mile is just another curve ball from the group this year. Technically, Mars’s name does not hold the same weight it would have five years or so ago, but his skill hasn’t waned in the four years since he hit a peak with 24K Magic (both the song and album). “Whenever You Call“‘s mid-tempo pace does a stellar job of covering all the group’s worst weaknesses, including some serviceable but awkward pronunciation (this doesn’t bother me, but it’s obvious most of the members are struggling a bit), and the video’s robust choreography that doesn’t quite match the laid back tone of the song (this routine has none of the chill that is a hallmark of Mars’ personality — even when he’s on his knees, he’s always in charge). Otherwise, this simple number is perfect for Arashi: bland enough to fit neatly into the group’s discography, but interesting enough to add a bit of flavor and genuine pathos to a long list of stuffy love songs. It’s no coincidence that Arashi is finally taking fun, sometimes lopsided, risks knowing that they have nothing left to lose, and it really makes one wonder what the group could have been if they had cared enough to think outside the very rigid confines of the Johnny’s formula ten or fifteen years ago instead. Of course, I have liked them just fine for the last few years, but imagine!

Movements: No Good Left to Give
(2020.09.18)

I feel a little guilty admitting that I think that Feel Something is one of the greatest debut albums of all time: the lead singer had barely reached legal drinking-age when the band put out one of the most honest and sincere depictions of depression set to audio. Does the album surpass its years to express a mature, wiser-than-its years clarity upon the subject? No, and all the better for it. The very heart-on-its-sleeve, sometimes angry, sometimes okay see-saw is the reason it works, a collection of haphazard emotional turbulence that only the young can, heart whole, deliver un-ironically. The dedicated post-hardcore touches only added to its mystifying success. Three years after its release, it’s still one of the CDs that sees the most re-play on my morning commutes. So with some apprehension, I queued up their follow-up album No Good Left to Give, already wincing at the train wreck of an album jacket. Luckily their sophomore album returns to the same trademark atmospherics of Feel Something. The genre has remained the same, but the execution feels more evolved and fleshed out, with a bit more specificity in its storytelling (“Seneca“) that lends songs a high relatability factor, and an overall less at-the-precipice than already-over-the-cliff commitment on the production side. The album can be a bit unforgiving in its relentless drive to play up the half-empty mindset when the music itself already does so much of the heavy lifting, with the lyrics an overkill at times and the spoken-wore segments still a distraction (also, note for note the same melody as the ones on Feel Something so it sounds — not in a good, come-full-circle way — like the exact same song), but this is still a world I can see myself spending as much time in as its predecessor, an aural space perfect for the bleak landscape we’ve all found ourselves in this year.

Kylie Minogue: “Magic”
(2020.09.24)

When Kylie announced the title of her new album, Disco, and revealed the cover art, I was hardly imagining the sound of “Say Something,” the first single released. But this is more like it! “Magic” perfectly captures the tone of “grown-up disco” that Minogue hinted at almost a year ago. With good reason, it lacks the serious resonance of Jessie Ware’s disco odyssey, reflecting, instead, the poppy fun we’ve come to expect from Minogue. It might not be so much grown-up, as an attempt by a grown up to capture the same nighttime feeling you only get at the club in your 20s, but it says a lot more than its predecessor. It also has a better, carefully social-distanced music video — okay, there’s only like six people total in the club and an invisible glass barrier surrounds our star, but we’re in the club again! Dancing! Celebrating! You can be nostalgic for 1979 and 2019!

As luck would have it: SM Entertainment & SuperM

You can just imagine the increasingly horrific consternation crossing the features of SM execs over the past two years, as BTS, the K-pop boy band from not one of the Big Three, broke more barriers and records then any previous group before them. Being the first South Korean group to hit #1 on the Hot 100 (for two consecutive weeks) must have hit particularly hard for an entertainment agency that has carefully leveraged every last one of its resources into building a reputation for the nation’s best and brightest pop music. Building an empire takes a lot of time and meticulous planning, capital and vast resources, and enormous talent and likable personalities, but it also takes one fickle factor no one has any control over: luck. That last elusive ingredient has changed everything for BTS. In 2020, the boy band’s track record now includes high-profile appearances on American talk shows (day and night), award shows, magazine cover stories, and the privilege of having physical copies of their CD albums stocked in big stores with tiny, exclusive shelf space like Target. SM Entertainment might have laid the very important groundwork, but you can imagine how they might be seething over not reaping the same prestige and pride that Big Hit does for really cracking the code (what other purpose does giving SuperM the same initials as the company serve, other than ego?).

We’re now seeing changes and accommodations for K-pop in the music industry that fans could only dream about ten years ago, including category designations for major awards and charts (my favorite is Billboard’s new Global 200 and Global Excl. US). Certainly, K-pop can’t be credited on its own, not with the hard work and patience of groups with global-popularity like BABYMETAL and Perfume, but the popularity that BTS ushered in has done something unique in America — the very sloth-like, near-miraculous job of normalizing and reinforcing Asian pop music and celebrity, of folding it into mainstream culture the way anime and manga has been doing over the last few decades.

This tentative embracing of Asian culture and celebrities for the long-term benefits everyone: the leading trade publication in the US for music sales, has expanded its coverage in recent years to artists like Perfume, Kenshi Yonezu, and Arashi. Finally coming to terms with the enormous influence and success of the business overseas and its potential to generate revenue stateside, it created an entire K-pop subsection on its web site. These aren’t trifles, and it comes with its stumbling blocks (K-pop, for example, is still mostly “other,” and the creation of all of these separate categories says a lot about how it’s still handled in a way to keep it carefully segregated from everyday, Western pop), but it’s progress. All of these highlights are important not because Western coverage legitimizes East Asian pop culture, but because some of these changes acknowledge that it is more than a one-hit wonder or passing phenomenon stateside, and is here for the stay, with those at the top finally making an effort to ensure it. And if BTS’s lasting success in all of this is what is takes to keep that fire lit under SM, I’m all for it.

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. All of them bring good looks and particular talents to the group, from dance to vocals to affable personality as a group constructed solely for the purpose of courting the same kind of success in the US that BTS has. The obvious rivalry would be comedic if it weren’t so earnest. After dropping their first EP last year with the earworm-y “Jopping” (because not only are they here to prove that they are the better K-pop boy band, they are also the more innovative!), the group returns this month with their first full-length album Super One, which includes the digital singles “Tiger Inside,” and “100,” both sequels exploiting aggressive boy-band energy with slick, metallic CGI, typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), and the kind of fast-paced, robust choreography that makes two hours of cardio at the gym seem like a warm-up. Pay particular attention to the song titles and lyrics, purposely selected to exploit its fan base and maximize its brand. This is the kind of album as clinical in its musical approach as the group’s construction itself, which of course, makes it no less methodical than any other major-label pop album.

Super One is not perfect, but like its predecessor, it mostly checks out. Longtime fans will appreciate the SM hallmarks all over here: the polished hooks and spotless production, the professional approach to songwriting and structure down to a precise science but infused with the lustrous X-factor that makes a song not just a song, but a hit. There’s some filler (“Better Days”) and some obvious condescension to trends that annoy more than they succeed (“Drip”), but other songs, like the lead titles “One (Monster & Infinity),” while clearly re-hashed concepts from EXO, are no less fun or captivating for their lack of originality. It’s a very different approach than that of BTS’s, which is perhaps why though SuperM is doing well, they’re still not at the same level of fanatical popularity. SuperM lacks the organic chemistry of BTS, and the wide-eyed and earnest DIY approach to songwriting the group is known for. As an SM group, this is exactly what one would expect, and I don’t think we’d really want it any other way.

However it does highlight the company’s ongoing quest for that ever elusive ingredient: luck. SM refuses to give in to their lack of it, instead doubling down with Super One on skill, talent, money, the psychology of fans and consumers, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Concentrating on these objectives can give the company a sense of control in a situation almost completely out of their hands: the reception and embrace of fans and a wider audience outside of South Korea. Certainly doing all of the above gives them an enormous advantage, but it’s no fail-safe, and it will be interesting to see how the album does in the next few months with touring and meet-and-greets still unsafe in the U.S, and yet another new BTS album scheduled for release in November. While this story develops, stay tuned for a week of BTS on Jimmy Fallon!

[ Image credit ]

August 2020: Highlights

The glaring drawback to writing monthly highlights is the lack of time spent with each new release, with mere days in the case of a few. With new releases piling up in the queue every week, it can seem self-indulgent to go back for more than a couple of repeat listens – but how else do you know if an album is terrible, a grower, or ephemeral? This column allows little space for that, and so I’ve been treating it more like footnotes to initial impressions. I’ve always been spotty with criticism itself, preferring history and context to straight musical analysis, and I keep in mind something Jill Lepore wrote in her introduction to These Truths: A History of the United States every time I sit down to write: “The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth” (xix). So once again, for your consideration, some notes on the journey to uncovering those truths.

Kenshi Yonezu: STRAY SHEEP
(2020.08.05)

Kenshi Yonezu’s music is the type the Oricon chart loves: absolute mid-brow J-pop, its mid-tempo, soft rock-heavy tones and nasal male vocals weaving back through a historical J-pop tunnel that includes the likes of Gen Hoshino, Official HigeDANDism, Mr. Children, and Southern All Stars. To start! As a distillation of the very precise, average mean of J-pop itself, you would think it would be hard not to like a little, like the gradual sponge-soaking of AKB48’s discography, now so saturated into the consciousness of any J-pop fan alive enough to count to two, that it’s hard to find it completely deplorable, or to realize the extent to which its sound is, essentially, the “J-pop sound” today. But where they really excel is in how much they have influenced other producers to steal the basic formula and inject it with style and substance, something lacking in the carbon copy prints of Kenshi Yonezu’s music. None of this is to say that STRAY SHEEP is a terrible album — how can any of it be terrible, when it is so unobjectionable, so safe, so ready to please the majority of a music-listening population who just want something that fits snugly into a pair of AirPods at the office? Something mellow enough to overlay, without having too much distracting personality or emotion, over opening credits and closing credits, and advertisements for flavored sugar water? Its big central themes of depression and overcoming struggle are universal, hard-wired to be relatable. Hey, I get depressed, too! It’s a kind of alchemy that seems destined to fall at the wayside of exceptional, original, and ultimately material matter, a surprise only if you aren’t aware how most people aren’t really looking for anything more than a reflection of their known reality in a safe, comforting package. For these people, an album that contains the hits “Uma to Shika,” “Lemon,” and “PAPRIKA” is the perfect bathwater, another entry in a long list of J-pop music that is more symbolic than it is artistic. As of this post, STRAY SHEEP has been #1 on the chart for the past four unbelievably consecutive weeks, which more than solidifies it as the most popular Japanese album of the year, a designation that is unlikely to get topped by any other album this year (surprise me!). Congratulations Kenshi, you’ve done it. Welcome to the hallowed, tepid halls of J-pop’s absolute middle.

Miley Cyrus: “Midnight Sky”
(2020.08.14)

Drag queens used to imitate celebrities, but with the sheer fun, originality, and mainstreaming of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it seems inevitable, in hindsight, that celebrities would now be imitating drag queens. Par for the course that Miley Cyrus would pick up the torch, since she has been imitating others throughout her whole career — country stars, pop stars, rap stars. I hope one day Miley finds out just exactly who she is, and though I’m certain this is just another re-invention on the road to that discovery, it’s one of the better ones. “Midnight Sky” is a song about walking out the door and not turning around now, masquerading as an innocuous pop song. “Free Woman” it is not, but it reaches for the same stars. Miley has worked in this 80’s disco-pop style before, notably with Mark Ronson, himself no stranger to vintage influences, though it seems to have taken a small team to assemble this seemingly straight-forward single. More exciting is the news that she worked with Max Martin for tracks on her upcoming album, which she promised to release when it’s safe to promote on tour. So is she really going to make us wait til 2024? I predict a backtrack on that: if it’s anything like “Midnight Sky,” it’s too irresponsible, and cruel, to hold out that long.

Unleash the Archers: Abyss
(2020.08.21)

It’s been so long since I’ve heard a metal album that I really, really like, that I am considering foregoing a top hard rock/metal list for this year’s annual year-end countdown. Not only have I been hard-pressed to find anything worth returning to in the genre, but I’ve been finding it near impossible to discover any new artists that make for a lazy Saturday spent surfing a back catalog. It’s now August, and Unleash the Archers is the very first. I have no qualms sharing that one of my favorite sub-genres of metal is power metal, the more a review contains the words “explosive,” “emotional,” and “epic,” the better. Cheese a plus. Abyss has all of that, including “incendiary” guitar solos, “soaring” female-fronted vocals, and a pace that never flags. Its at-times goofy fun and throwback riffs are welcome words and sounds this year, and I love forward to spending time with this band’s previous work whenever one of those Saturdays pop up, which seems to be more of a mythical optimism this year.

Hans Zimmer: “Themyscira”
(2020.08.22)

Wonder Woman was the first first female superhero to star in her own movie in either of the two shared universes from rivals DC and Marvel. The movie also had the distinction of being directed by a woman, one who vowed to hire as many women as she could for the crew, so it’s a bit of a head scratcher why she couldn’t make an impact by hiring a woman to compose and direct the score. Female composers are so scarce, that the industry is falling all over themselves to heap praise on Hildur Guðnadóttir. Guðnadóttir deserves every bit of the acclaim she received for her work on Joker, but there actually are other women in the industry, and they could all use a little exposure to help them get the recognition their talent deserves in a heavily male-dominated industry. I mean, was Pinar Toprak busy or something? I feel a bit guilty saying that because Rupert Gregson-Williams did a phenomenal job with the original score: his Wonder Woman is action-packed, thrilling, and hits all the right punches, and knowing a sequel is coming down the slide makes me think it will be hard to top “Action Reaction” or “Lightening Strikes.” But also…was Pinar Toprak busy again? I suppose Wonder Woman‘s success now merits the prestige direction of Hans Zimmer, and I really do feel if anyone can come close or top the original, it might be him. Then again, his superhero work is really hit or miss for me, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting the Wonder Woman 1984 score, and then waiting, and then waiting some more, as every movie release has been pushed back, and then pushed back again. Finally, the unheard offering of a cue “single” has been released as an olive branch. The track is “Themyscira,” and it hints at what we can expect from the full score: orchestral grandeur, with a bit of choral flair. It’s hard not to compare this piece to Zimmer’s main theme for Gladiator, and I expect that’s a nod to the scene this piece will show up in, a rather deliberate one-note delivery of the composer’s idea of arenas and ancient games. I don’t hate it, but it’s hardly original. I know Zimmer composed the original WW “theme” in (very loose use of that term here) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that Gregson-Williams cited, but I hope that Zimmer returns the favor and drops subtle hints to the original score. Wonder Woman 1984 — and presumably the score — is now set to drop October 2. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some more teaser tracks before the date gets pushed back again.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering what Pinar Toprak has been up to, her score for the smaller-screen superhero Stargirl was released this month. No, this is not Wonder Woman-level work, but it’s solid, and better, I think, then her work last year on Captain Marvel. Every year she seems to expand as an artist, and I look forward to seeing her get her big-screen due in time, not just because she is a woman, though that is certainly noteworthy for the industry, but because her level of skill demands it.)

Katy Perry: Smile
(2020.08.28)

It’s fortunate for Katy Perry that Teenage Dream did so phenomenally well, as it’s the kind of success that’s allowed her to coast long after she had anything original or noteworthy to share, and well, well past the time anyone else would have been hunted down by cancel culture before a single apology could be performed on a kind of please-let-me-keep-my-career world tour posing as genuine understanding, glossed over with virtue-signalling self-enlightenment. Katy Perry knows how to play to the people, is what I’m saying. She’s the type of person intent on ticking off all the boxes required to keep the public’s attention, any number of which has included ditching religion, kissing girls, shooting whipped cream from her chest, making highly inappropriate comments about other cultures, engaging in trendy, Twitter-worthy beefs with high-profile celebrities, cashing in on those beefs by copping the opponent’s successful playbook of trendy celebrity cameos, and jumping on bandwagons from music styles, to dances, to feat. guests. Katy Perry is not the first celebrity to stoop to desperate tactics (there’s at least one other in this month’s highlights), and even your unproblematic faves have employed some of these measures over the course of their careers, but only a few have done it as recklessly, as guilelessly, and as obviously, all the while hopscotching across a series of increasingly mediocre albums. The newest batch of Perry singles, in particular, has left me perplexed, the type of toothless nosedive as disappointing as Gwen Stefani’s trajectory. Is it something about mega-popular talent programs that force people to dilute anything even remotely interesting about themselves? All this meandering dither is just to say, Smile is okay, but the world deserves a lot better from someone trying so hard, from someone who released a Teenage Dream and yet still gets all the same hype despite failing to produce a single album as great. Max Martin is notably absent on this set, replaced by a lively circus of producers (many fellow Swedes, but many not), creating a kind of charcuterie board of leftovers that has been sitting out just a bit too long to be wholly palatable. The songs range from high-octane decent (“Cry About It Later,” “Not the End of the World“) to mid-paced meh (“Champagne Problems,” “Tucked“). The album is also marked by the exclusion of her best single, post-Witness‘s “365,” although I guess some deluxe editions include the other duds not worthy enough to make the album proper. It’s been a whole lot of build-up for something so conservative, and in a sea of solo albums from Selena Gomez (yes, that was actually this year), Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Jessie Ware, this is surely the most tone-deaf. As a side note, the concept art is a baffling overreach, and last-minute additional cover art hints to the rush in which this was clearly put together. Perhaps more thought into anything Perry does would help, as years of scrambling continues to work against her.

Selena Gomez & BLACKPINK: “iCE Cream”
(2020.08.28)

At the pace at which K-pop moves, it’s hard to believe that 2NE1 will only be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first full-length studio album this month. It might as well be two times that number considering how quickly the group has fallen out of memory, and how the widespread popularity of boy bands like BTS have created an entirely new generation of K-pop fans, one for whom 2NE1 never existed and might as well serve as nothing more than a historical footnote to the massive ascendancy of BLACKPINK. It’s sad, but not surprising: groups like Super Junior and Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 were themselves replacements for groups like H.O.T. and Baby V.O.X and in five years, another YG group will replace BLACKPINK. It’s a dizzying pace of constant recycling that requires little more than a basic understanding of the pace at which fashion and style move.

So I can’t help but wonder if fans of S.E.S. felt as bewildered by “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” as I currently do by BLACKPINK. Aside from a global popularity that rests almost entirely on three or four songs, they’ve also managed to strike up collaborations with artists as high-profile as Lady Gaga (on this year’s “Sour Candy“) and now, Selena Gomez with “iCE Cream.” It’s all brilliant marketing, I suppose, splashy neon colors, and shiny backdrops, and trendy choreography working its butt off to make the group look a lot better than singles that are wholly self-contained in the first five seconds actually are. Three minutes later and you’re still waiting for a proper chorus. The collaboration aspect isn’t as important as the message itself, which is that BLACKPINK and Gomez are at a stage where both parties, with their astronomical social media numbers, can mutually benefit from the other. The medium, YouTube, is perfect, because it provides the ideal mode in which to place beautiful women in highly-stylized fantasy settings, doing beautiful, fantastical things, like pretending they’re allowed to eat sweets. Tale as old as time, really, but it only succeeds if the music has any sort of substance, which “iCE Cream” does not. Not to mention that “iCE Cream” is already the fourth or fifth high-profile K-pop song about frozen junk food, and just as far down on the list compared to, just off the top of my head, f(x), Hyuna, and Red Velvet. I want to like BLACKPINK, and I already like Selena Gomez, but this single is another in a long-line of empty hits from the group that make me feel older with each passing day. Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.